A quick chat around the office reveal there are two distinct camps, those that love Wes Anderson precisely because his films are so quirky and unusual, and those that hate him for the same reason. There would appear to be no middle ground what so ever, you either signed up from the first film you saw or decided it just wasn’t for you (although Fantastic Mr. Fox appears to buck this trend a little). The good news for the former is that his latest film is the most Wes Anderson-ly Wes Anderson film to date, deeply quirky, wonderfully designed to within an inch of its life and just a step above being slight as to be delightful without being a pointless exercise. If you’ve not been converted in the past this isn’t going to be the film that does it for you, if you have then you know exactly what you’re sitting down to see even before the credit role.
The surprise here is that behind the more typical whimsy Anderson seems to be reaching for something deeper than personnel drama, alluding to a far wider world beyond the confines of his characters. The narrative within a narrative explains the exaggerated nature of the characters (and allows him to exercise his preoccupation with typesetting and pantone colours), but doing so strengthens the way in which the rise of fascism (a minor aspect of the plot that whilst not incidental, is there to create a sense of nostalgia for simpler times –a common Anderson theme) is dealt with – here the villain is truly villainous in that he just wants power at any cost. Previous Anderson villains have always been misunderstood loners who need a guide, here there’s no chance of repentance on the villain’s part – they’re unwilling to see that there actions and loyalties to a hideous cause are wrong. Anderson no longer needs to offer redemption to all of his characters.
Which makes this all sound far deeper than it really is, at heart the film is just an elaborate shaggy dog story about how a man came to own a hotel from another man who initially didn’t own it. The punchline (like all shaggy do stories) is known from the opening, the joy is in seeing how it gets there and who we meet along the way. This film has probably the best cast of the year, just when you think there couldn’t possibly be anyone else who they could fit in, along comes another recognisable face (although Tilda Swinton deserves points for being unrecognisable – it wasn’t until the credits I even knew she was in the film). Top honours go to Fiennes who shows a flair for comedy which we last saw in the ill-conceived (but oddly brilliant at moment in some ways) Avengers film in the nineties, but here more polished and suited to his personality – a faultless comedy of manners (it reminded me in some ways of his performance in Quiz Show, albeit slightly more showy). The film relies on creating a genuine affection for him despite his foibles (which become apparent as the film progresses), leaving his possible fate (hinted at in the film) all the sadder as a result. If Edward Norton and Harvey Kietel seem a little miscast, it’s only because everyone else is so near perfect (including William Dafoe as a sub-Luch Lurch), playing somewhere between knowing about the joke but being perfectly straight about it.
The artifice is no longer hidden, this shares more with Fantastic Mr. Fox than his earlier films in the manner in which it embraces the limits of model work (which are architecturally superb) and set design over real world locations – everything feels like a movie version of a set rather than of real life (further enhancing the narrative within the narrative element, only the middle narrative (also a fabrication) feels real with its lurid orange vision of a communist state. The camera moves but more often than not along the vertical rather than horizontal, but mostly it is static and treating everything as a painting or model railway. It’s wonderfully conceived.
It’s not going to make any converts, previous detractors will probably deride the style over substance (but there is more substance than ever) even more than usual, but for those that love his films it’s a reminder of how good he can be, and a hint of what he may be possible of delivering in the future. Just wonderful.